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Review: L'Avventura (1960)

Roundly and resoundingly booed halfway into the film, the director Antonioni and its star Vitti fled the theatre. Both could probably half-guess the audience’s hostility- being fed on films that abide by the dictates of consistency and logic, many could hardly brookL’Avventura’s general uneventfulness and the director’s irrepressible urge to detract the storyline from its central current; but none expected the film to win, days after the disastrous premiere, the Jury Prize, the third most prestigious prize of Cannes festival. And more awards followed up, as the film blazed through the Continent, incurring more ire and bemusement.

The hullabaloo was intense but short-lived. Counterculture that initiated by the discontented youngsters swept through the Western world like virus; the iconoclasts of the yore now found themselves ironically amongst the majority. It was considered “hip” to revolt against the established order, to denounce traditional values and to revel in moral depravity. Artistic creativity became an instrument of social revolution, a vehicle for disseminating thoughts and sentiments of freedom. Amidst such fraught climate of an almost mobilised anti-conservatism, L’Avventura went from the butt of contemptuous laughter and scurrilous attacks to the benchmark and prototype of a new age of filmmaking. Followers and admirers read into the film the obsessive preoccupation with mundanity, of daily life and human conditions, that borders on a transcendental reckoning of selves. Many filmmakers adhered to this interpretation and their own understanding of the Antonionian template, and had taken to making serious art out of long-drawn boredom and insipidness.

One reason why L’Avventura has remained in the canon half a century after its release, even after the 1960s’ counterculture had begun falling out of favour with the passing generations, is its timeless relatability with the contemporary audience. The film, in many respects, can almost be conceived as a prophesy of the changeless, irremediable malaise that has persisted, in ever worrying tenacity, for many succeeding decades. For one, the  growing detachment of human relationships is especially keenly felt amongst the 21st century neo-Lost-Generation. This is compounded by a fear of the unknown, and an apprehension of a rude awakening from a protracted period of habitual oblivion. To say the least, the plausible connotations of L'Avventura are cruel and devastating.

The story concerns a mystery without a denoument, a search of a missing girl that, an hour or so into the film, is more or less declared futile. The remainder of the film charts the unlikely romance between the missing girl’s boyfriend and her best friend. Their budding relationship, if any, is incessantly haunted by the glaring absence of the missing girl, who, being initially the primary purpose of their union, is becoming the menace that nudges them towards a possible, imminent separation. That skein of tension induced by the unfortunate event is clumsily concealed under a withering façade of the couple’s dissolute idyll- the viewing of the film is disquieting in that we are anticipating the break-up of such deception, which we are certain will be coming. Those impassive sybarites have simply stuck too long in the emotional limbo that any little feeling that seeps into their consciousness is bound to bring shivers, and tears. After a night of empty pleasure with a hooker, the man, being caught in the act by the woman, breaks down in tears; the woman, though greatly angered by the man’s inner weakness, and chronic infidelity, lays her hand on his head and comforts him, whilst both stare into the break of dawn. Rarely could Antonioni’s coevals create something as emotionally charged and poignant as this spellbinding coda.

Antonioni’s deliberate forgoing of a linear perspective echoes a similar technique of the modernist literature of the 1930s, which enjoyed an ephemeral but effective resurgence in the 1960s. Critics of that period thought the face of cinema would be forever changed- somewhat, but hardly. The descendants of Antonioni’s tradition were few and after numerous fruitless attempts to match the auteur’s pre-eminence, many deserted the abstract and went back to the literal. The division between entertainment and art has thus remained clear ever since.


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